Yesterday (5/18) marked the release of the fine new Crooked Still CD, Some Strange Country on Signature Sounds. Like their several previous projects, this one combines a modified string band format (banjo, fiddle, bass, cello) with wispy vocals on a sampling of obscure traditional folk songs and originals from the band.
The music is simply brilliant – clever arrangements, virtuosic performances and a striking sonic clarity in the recording. A number of audio samples appear later in this piece.
We did a lengthy interview with vocalist Aoife O’Donovan when their last CD, Still Crooked, hit in 2008. This time, we spoke with banjoist Greg Liszt, whose unique voice on his instrument is every bit as definitive of the Crooked Still sound as is O’Donovan’s.
Liszt is an interesting guy, and a unique artist. He has developed a powerful banjo style, often incorporating four finger patterns with his right hand in addition to the more common use of three. This technique finds him using the ring finger to play the 1st or 2nd strings (where the middle finger normally would), and moving that middle finger into the typical role of the index on the 2nd and 3rd strings. Doing so frees his index finger to alternate with the thumb for repeated 8th note drone strikes on the 4th string.
Greg’s four finger technique is especially useful in Crooked Still, where they do not use a guitar, making the banjo the sole instrument capable of executing fully orchestrated chords.
In his characteristically clever manner, he accepts his position with good humor and aplomb.
“Yeah, I definitely fill the role of the guitarist to a certain extent. The histrionics, the shredding, the riffs; they are all my domain.”
Prior to moving into a full-time music career, Liszt had pursued the academic life. He graduated from Yale in 1999, and then moved to Boston where he studied at MIT, eventually garnering a PhD in microbiology in 2006.
It was during this time that he became immersed in the vibrant Boston folk/acoustic music scene, and met up with the other artists who made up the original edition of Crooked Still. In addition to current members O’Donovan and bassist Corey DiMario, that first group included innovative young cellist Rushad Eggleston, who has since left the group to follow opportunities on the west coast where he grew up. Those founding members released the first Crooked Still album, Hop High, in 2004.
Greg also has his own band, The Deadly Gentlemen, who perform his melding of hip hop and progressive bluegrass, and with whom he will be recording when the current Crooked Still tour concludes this summer. He also writes and maintains The Bluegrass Intelligencer, one of my favorite web sites, which takes a hilariously fictional look at the bluegrass and acoustic string music world, a la The Onion.
But back to Some Strange Country…
When I first contacted Greg about the new record, I mentioned that his tone on this project seemed different to my ear, as compared to their previous albums.
“I got my Stelling banjo set up by Geoff and Jimmy Stelling right before the session, so it was in really good playing condition. Those guys take great care of me and are always tweaking up my banjo on a moment’s notice. Also, I took a ten-day retreat to a cabin in the woods just to practice for this recording. But the most important factor may just be how [producer] Gary Paczosa recorded and mixed the banjo. In a lot of ways, the banjo sound on Some Strange Country is the closest I’ve ever heard to how my banjo sounds in real life.
I used several different tunings on the CD, and even played a little slide banjo, too. I was trying to get as much variation as I could in tone and timbre between the different songs without ever going so far as to change my setup or use a different banjo.”
Another new sound on this album was Greg’s pronounced use of right hand muting, giving the banjo a more percussive effect, without losing its harmonic contribution.
“I mute a lot with my right palm just by resting it on the bridge of the banjo while I’m picking. It’s a guitar technique that’s used in a lot of different genres. Bela Fleck uses it from time to time, too. It works great for backup playing because it takes the edge off the banjo tone and but preserves the banjo’s rhythmical drive. I also use it in solos to get some variation in the sound and segue in and out of the background.
I started doing that to accompany blues songs in Crooked Still, and I’ve since applied it to almost everything else we do.
I also do some left hand muting, mostly when I’m chunking away on the rhythm. That’s the old Earl Scruggs method of lifting up the left hand a bit the instant you pluck the notes. I have that combined with some different double stop rolls to get fast paced syncopated chopping patterns. It helps to pick with four fingers if you want to play that stuff.”
Greg’s playing is spot-on throughout the CD – as is that of the other players, DiMario on bass, Tristan Claridge on cello and Brittany Haas on fiddle – but one bit of banjo really stands out. It’s Turning Away, one he wrote, and which is performed on Some Strange Country as a duet with Aoife – but with the assistance of Haas, who works the Keith tuners.
He’s not only expanded modern banjo to four fingers, now he’s gone to three hands!
“OK, this is a funny story… I wrote that song for a girl I had a big crush on some years back. Yeah, I admit it! She wanted to learn the banjo, and it occurred to me that I could write a banjo song for two people to play on just one banjo! One person would play the banjo while the other one operated the tuning pegs. That would allow you to play all kinds of really pretty things that are impossible for just one banjo player. Great idea, right?
Well, it was a musical success but tactically it backfired. In hindsight, it’s obvious that a banjo player would find that exercise a lot more romantic than a non-banjo player would. The girl and I learned the song, which drastically worsened my crush without having much of an effect on her.
So I gave up on Turning Away as a vehicle for romance. And it turned out for the best.
A little while later I got an audition for Bruce Springsteen’s Sessions Band, and during the lunch break I taught the song to a little kid who seemed interested in the banjo. We were jamming it out when Bruce happened by. He loved it. I think it helped me get the job!”
Turning Away: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/turning_away.mp3]
A big part of the beauty of Crooked Still’s music is how these young artists combine centuries old traditional folk songs with the members’ modern musical sensibilities, but never letting the arrangements take control and erode the simple power of these wonderful songs.
One that is especially moving is The Golden Vanity, which tells of a tragic tale at sea. Here’s a piece of the track, which features Ricky Skaggs on harmony vocal, along with Greg’s description of how they dig up these treasures.
The Golden Vanity: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/the_golden_vanity.mp3]
“We got several of the songs from various scratchy source recordings. Like, unrecognizably scratchy. Other traditional songs came from somewhat more recent folk singers ranging from Dock Boggs and Roscoe Holcomb to Peggy Seeger and Jody Stecher. There are several original songs too, such as a fiddle tune by Brittany Haas and a song by Aoife O’Donovan.
Oh yeah, and we cover the Stones song, You Got The Silver. Hence the slide banjo.”
Another very strong cut is I’m Troubled, also a traditional number, which really showcases Greg’s use of the four finger right hand picking using the low drone on the 4th string, here tuned down to a C note.
I’m Troubled: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/im_troubled.mp3]
I suppose I should admit to my personal bias here. I admire Crooked Still tremendously, and find Greg Liszt to be among the most interesting 5 string banjo players on the scene today. That being said, I can’t recommend Some Strange Country highly enough.
And make a point to catch Crooked Still live if the opportunity arises.